College senior Marell Cook is paying it forward.
She wants other students with to know that they too can succeed in college, just like she has. The 23-year-old English major will graduate in May from East Carolina University. And she’s using the blog she created to make the transition to college easier for high-schoolers and incoming college freshmen.
Cook is part of Project STEPP at East Carolina. It stands for Supporting Transition and Education through Planning and Partnerships. STEPP was set up to help students with learning disabilities () succeed in college. According to the 2014 State of Learning Disabilities report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, just 41 percent of students with LD complete college, compared with 52 percent of the general population.
“For me, STEPP was more like a safety net,” Cook says. “My self-esteem was pretty low coming into college,” she says. “I thought my disability would affect how successful I could be.”
But Project STEPP helped her navigate the campus and showed her how to approach professors when learning differences came up in the classroom. STEPP also taught her to be advocate for herself without worrying that others “would judge me for it,” she says.
Project STEPP was started by Sarah Williams. Williams is an associate professor of at East Carolina. She still oversees Project STEPP. But it has morphed and is now part of the much larger College STAR program, which Williams also leads. There are three colleges in that program: East Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Appalachian State University.
Williams says students in the College STAR program are the real winners. College STAR stands for Supporting Transition Access and Retention. The program is designed to help students who have learning and thinking differences. Much of its expansion over the past three years is the result of a grant from the Oak Foundation, which “wanted to do something large scale,” Williams says.
Years ago, Williams left her job as a middle school special education teacher to train other special education teachers. But at East Carolina, she has discovered a second equally strong passion—helping students with LD master college.
At UNC-Greensboro, the focus is on . At Appalachian State, the focus is on students with . At East Carolina, the College STAR program operates under the name Project STEPP and focuses on learning differences like dyslexia.
All of the campuses use flexible teaching methods, Williams says. This means professors try to use teaching methods that work for each student. The campuses also work to raise teacher awareness of learning and thinking differences. The programs offer professional development workshops and seminars for professors. They also provide tutors who work with professors to assist struggling students.
“I am thrilled about the success of the students—and the buy-in from the faculty and the staff and the tutoring center,” Williams said in an interview. She says the next phase of the program will add a research layer. “We want to make sure we’re being strategic about what we’re learning as we work with students and faculty.”
Many colleges offer programs to support students with learning and thinking differences. If you’re looking at potential colleges for your child, here are some things you may want to think about.
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Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for